If you follow Ramshackle Pantry you know that we strive to make some great recipes, like we are going to do in our current Margarita series. Another thing that we like to do is explore everything about a classic dish or cocktail, including history. One thing about food and cocktail history is that it is often filled with myth and marketing, which can muddle the story of a dish. There is plenty of muddling that goes on with the history of the margarita and that is what we are going to try and wade through today. We are going to look at Margarita history and try to uncover some of the origin stories for the classic cocktail.
Margarita History Baseline - Tequila and Triple Sec!
There is no such thing as a margarita cocktail without tequila and lime, so we can put some definitive timelines around the creation of this classic drink based on those ingredients.
Tequila Origins - 1500s
We are going to look closer at the origin of Tequila in a later post, but the summary is pretty clear. Spanish conquistadors came to North America and were used to harder liquor. They had a taste for brandy, which is twice distilled grapes. The locals were already making a wine type of drink from the agave plant. The two cultures fused and tequila was the end product. All indications are that tequila has been around since the 1500s.
No, the margarita just did not happen when tequila showed up. It wasn’t like 16th Century Jimmy Buffet was just waiting in the corners for tequila to show up so he could create his 16th Century hit “Let me doth take ye, kind sir, to Margaritaville”. Other things needed to happen before the cocktail, as we know it, comes to be.
Triple Sec - 1834
I consider triple sec to be an integral part of the drink and is essential to margarita history. This is also where we can start narrowing things down a bit further. Triple Sec was invented in 1834, reportedly by a distillery named Combier, which still exists today. By the late 1800s, Triple Sec was a common liquor in the bartender’s arsenal of alcohols.
Using this information, I would say our timeline for margarita history has narrowed from 1834 forward, but probably even much later than that. Triple Sec still needed to find notoriety, not to mention, find it’s way to tequila. Tequila was primarily a drink that still lived and breathed in Mexico. Triple Sec was born in Europe.
General Accounts of Margarita History
Most accounts for the origin of the margarita come from the timeline of about 1930 to 1955. So, I think our best course of action in trying to narrow down the history of these origin stories is to just list them and rate my opinion on how feasible the origin story is. We can cut some of the origin stories out right away, due to an advertising campaign in 1945 from Jose Cuervo that featured the Margarita.
Because I am interested in the origin story of the Margarita and not the not-origin stories, I am going to leave anything out that has dates following 1945, as I think it is safe to say that they are FALSE.
Carlos Herrera and Marjorie King - Allergies
One of the origin stories involves a bar owner named Carlos Herrera. Herrera reportedly invented the Margarita for Marjorie King in the early 1940s (OR 1938 according to other sources), who was an actress and dancer of the time. King was reportedly allergic to all alcohol, except tequila, but had a tough time with the taste. Herrera pulled together the Margarita and margarita history was made. According to the LA times article, the name Margarita is a Spanish version of Marjorie. I tried to find an interview with Herrera, but I could not find anything and he passed away in 1992. Possible Origin Truth? Seems Possible
Prohibition Made the Margarita
I own the David Wondrich book, Imbibe!, and in it, he suggests that the Margarita may have simply been a creation from the times of prohibition. Americans could cross over into Mexico and partake in alcoholic beverages. There was a casino and golf course that opened up right across the border and was serving tequila drinks as a house drink.
Did you know that Spanish word for daisy is Margarita? Incidentally, there is also a famous cocktail named Daisy. One version of the Daisy had virtually same ingredients as our modern Margarita, minus the Tequila.
One thing about drinks in the olden days is that alcohol was often interchangeable for different recipes. So, they may have had a Rum Daisy or a Brandy Daisy or a Whiskey Daisy. This variation was the Tequila Daisy. The invention of the Margarita may have been the result of Prohibition. This would have placed the creation in the early 30s and we are unsure when it would have been changed from a Tequila Daisy to a Margarita. That transion from a Tequila Daisy to a literal Spanish translation of Daisy, seems pretty reasonable. Possible Origin Truth? Seems Possible
Francisco Morales at Tommy’s Place Bar and Margarita History
I like this origin story quite a bit. The story goes that Francisco invented the drink on a 4th of July in 1942. A woman ordered a magnolia cocktail, but Francisco did not know how to make it. Instead of telling the truth, he mixed up a drink and because the name sounded like ‘Magnolia”, he called it a Margarita. Well, she liked it and margarita history was sealed.
We even have a 1974 interview with Francisco Morales from Texas Monthly that tells the story in his own words. A cool part is that he since moved to the US, became a citizen, and worked a working class life as a milkman for 25 years before his passing in 1997. Possible Origin Truth? Seems Possible and we hear it straight from him. I like this one
Another popular origin story is that the margarita was created in 1941 at Hussongs in Baja, MX by a bartender named Don Carlos Orozo. It was tried by a German Ambassador to Mexico's daughter, Margarita Henkel, and the Margarita was born.
While this is a plausible scenario, I have some problems with this version. First, Hussongs does not seem to embrace this story. That raises some suspicions with me when a place like that does not embrace being the inventors of one of the biggest modern cocktails. Second, outside of Margarita history posts, I barely found any mention of a person named Margarita Henkel. I did find a mention of a person of that name from the 70s with reference to Baja. So, it is plausible that this is the same person.
What really threw me and makes me doubt this story is that there was never a German ambassador to Mexico with the last name Henkel. Here is a list of German Ambassadors to Mexico. It could be that Margarita’s last name was changed or that there was some sort of lesser kind of ambassador, perhaps? I did look through a significant portion of that list looking for a Margarita mentioned but did not find one. That would provide the definitive truth, I suppose.
A normal person might leave it at that. Not me. I went and signed up for the free trial at Ancestry.com to do some research. This further solidified my belief that this is a false origin story in this research. I did find a few different Margarita Henkels, but one had a father whose name was Eduardo Schweitzer. Another, from Germany, had a maiden name of Bolst. These names are not connected with German Ambassadors to Mexico.
There were two other Margarita Henkel I found that seem unlikely, but could be in the universe of possibility. Very unlikely, but possible. One had a wedding certificate from the 1930s in Arizona, USA to a man named Lindsay Gillis. I did look at Lindsay Gillis and could not find any connection to either Germany or Mexico. Another was a US census form from Cincinnati, OH during the 1940 censuses. She could have jet setted from OH to MX around WWII time. While I cannot 100% nix either of these possibilities, I think it is fair to say that neither of these Margarita Henkels is related to the origin of the Margarita with moderate certainty. I just don't think that THIS Margarita Henkel, referred to in the myth, exists.
Do you know something I do not or see a flaw with my logic? Let me know. I will change this. Possible Origin Truth? I don' t think so. Did I just disprove a history myth that has been accepted by many? I think so. Maybe.
There are some other origin stories, but if they occurred after 1945, I just won’t cover them in this post, as Jose Cuervo was already advertising Margaritas during that time frame. We have not narrowed down the exact Margarita history, but I think we have come closer to understanding this history of this classic cocktail. If you like what we are doing, please subscribe to get updates via email and follow me on Instagram.